WASHINGTON — As the 2020 general election nears, the second of four polls from EWTN News and RealClear Opinion Research highlights a generational divide when it comes to Catholic teachings on abortion and marriage — one that exists even among more devout Catholics.
It also reveals how younger Catholics, ages 18-34, view the current political landscape and the 2020 candidates.
The poll was taken Jan. 28-Feb. 4 from a sample of 1,521 self-identified Catholics. Of these 1,521 Catholics, 33% were ages 18-34, 28% were ages 35-54, and 39% were 55 and older.
In terms of presidential voting preferences, the youngest age group were those most likely to favor Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and the least likely to approve of President Donald Trump.
The 18-34 age group favored Sanders over Trump 58% to 34% and chose him first among the Democratic primary choices, at 35%, with Joe Biden coming next, at 18%. The 35-54 age group still favored Sanders over Trump, but by 50% to 43%, and their Democratic primary pick was Biden, at 29%; Michael Bloomberg, at 23%; and then Sanders, at 19%. Catholics 55 and older chose Trump over Sanders 46% to 44% and chose Biden, at 40%, as their Democratic primary pick, with Sanders lagging, at 18%.
Just 42% of 18- to 34-year-old Catholics approved of President Trump, while 58% disapproved. Those aged 35-54 and 55 and older were more divided on the matter, with both groups giving Trump 49% approval and 51% disapproval.
Recent polling of all U.S. voters ages 18-34 showed that, like Catholics in that age group, their favored candidate is Sanders, who had 31% of their support, according to an October Quinnipiac poll. Voters ages 18-34 have also been giving President Trump comparably low approval ratings, with just 37% approving of him, according to a Harris Hill poll conducted in August.
John Della Volpe, polling director of RealClear Opinion Research, told the Register, “Like other members of their generation, millennial Catholics [18-34] tend to be far more liberal on most issues than their parents and grandparents, who are members of the baby boomer and silent generations.”
He pointed out that “61% approve of the jobs Democrats in Congress are doing, compared to 46% who approve of Republicans,” adding that on social issues like “whether religious adoption institutions should be required to place children with same-sex couples … their views stand in direct contrast to older Catholics.”
This younger group is also “less likely to say religion plays a very important part in their life, pray regularly — although church attendance is not significantly different than other age groups,” Della Volpe said.
Abortion and Marriage
Within the 18-34 group, less than a third (32%) attend Mass on a weekly or more basis (35% for all age groups).
Only 17% accepted all the teachings of the Church, 37% accepted most Church teachings, 28% did not accept key teachings, and 16% said the Church was a “minor influence” in their lives.
And when it comes to foundational moral teachings on same-sex “marriage” and abortion, younger Catholics collectively were at odds with Church teaching.
Half of Catholic voters ages 18-34 said that, regardless of their religious beliefs, Christian business owners in the wedding industry should be “required” to provide services for a same-sex “wedding.” Only 44% of voters ages 35-54 thought the same, and just 30% of voters ages 55 and older agreed.
When it came to religious institutions being required to place children with same-sex couples, 48% of 18- to 34-year-olds thought it should be required, compared to 40% of those ages 35-54 and 35% of Catholics 55 and older.
The U.S. bishops have spoken out against Christian businesses or religious institutions being required to serve same-sex weddings against their religious beliefs or requirements that discriminate against Catholic agencies because they decline to place children with same-sex couples, stressing that such actions are a direct violation of religious liberty.
While younger Catholics departed from Church teachings on the issue of religious freedom and same-sex “marriage” more than the older generations did, their views on abortion were marginally more pro-life than the views of Catholics ages 35-54. Fifty-five percent of younger Catholics thought abortion should be legal, and 42% thought it should be illegal; while 57% of 35- to 54-year-olds thought it should be legal, and 38% thought it should be illegal. Catholics 55 and older were more clearly opposed to abortion, as just 44% thought it should be legal, and 50% thought it should be illegal.
In terms of Church teaching, however, Catholics ages 18-34 and 35-54 were less likely to agree with the teaching that abortion is “intrinsically evil.” Only 44% of those aged 18-34 and 43% of those aged 35-54 said it was intrinsically evil, compared to 52% of those 55 and older.
‘Devout’ Young Catholics
As would be expected, the 17% of 18- to 34-year-olds polled who stated that they accepted all the teachings of the Church were more likely than their age group in general to be in line with Church teachings on the issues of abortion and marriage. This group attends Mass much more regularly, with 70% attending weekly or more (72% of all ages who accept all Church teaching attend Mass weekly or more). They were also more likely to approve of President Trump.
Among these “devout” 18- to 34-year-olds, 53% approved of Trump and 47% disapproved. Like their age group as a whole, they were relatively less approving of Trump than their elders, as devout Catholics aged 35-54 gave Trump 59% approval and those 55 and older registered 73% approval. Among Democratic candidates, young devout Catholics ages 18-34 supported Sanders the most, at 22%, but support for Biden followed close behind, at 21%.
As for the legality of abortion, these devout 18- to 34-year-olds were divided on whether abortion should be legal: 48% thought so, and 49% thought it should be illegal, similar to the 48% of devout 35- to 54-year-olds who thought it should be legal and 51% who thought it should be illegal. Devout Catholics 55 and older were again more clearly opposed, with just 33% thinking it should be legal and 65% thinking it should be illegal.
While devout Catholics aged 18-34 were more in line with Church teachings on marriage than their age group in general, they were more likely than older devout Catholics to favor requiring Christian businesses in the wedding industry to provide services for same-sex weddings, with 42% support for that position. Of devout Catholics ages 35-54, 38% thought Christian businesses should have to provide services for same-sex weddings, but just 19% of devout Catholics 55 and older thought so, as well.
Educating Young Catholics
Mary Rice Hasson, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and director of the Catholic Women’s Forum, told the Register that the younger generation’s divergence from Church teaching on the issues of abortion and marriage is unfortunately not surprising.
“Public schools today normalize the idea of same-sex marriage and support ‘a woman’s right to choose,’” Hasson said. “Those are the messages our young people hear day after day. The time spent in religious ed (an hour a week) is no match for the amount of time per week (35-plus hours) our young people spend learning in environments that are not faith-supportive.”
“Even kids from strong Catholic families will find it challenging — it’s exponentially more difficult for a young Catholic from a family in which the parents are not as well-formed or practice intermittently,” she said. “Unfortunately, our young Catholics are being ‘educated’ by the culture more than by fellow believers. If we want to change those numbers, we need to make authentic Catholic education possible for every Catholic child.”
Kevin Bohli, executive director of youth, campus and young adult ministries for the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, told the Register that teaching young adults about marriage and sexuality was crucial to their understanding of Church teaching and proper faith formation. Bohli said “a big part” of campus ministry “is truly teaching what the Church teaches and making sure that they understand what the Church teaches.”
“Once they do understand the beauty of what the Church teaches and understand the theology of the body and the purpose of the body and the purpose of sexuality and what a true marriage looks like, then I would guess that their voting habits and their willingness to share the faith with others and to share the truth with others would become a whole lot easier and a whole lot more natural,” he said.
For campus ministry, Bohli said, “these topics are broken down and taught in many different ways, so we’re talking a lot of times about theology of the body. We’re talking a lot of times about morality; we’re talking a lot about the sacraments and the purpose of marriage.”
Communicating Age-Old Truths
Niru De Silva, the coordinator of young adult ministry for the Diocese of Arlington, talked about his own conversion and the importance of communicating the age-old truths of the Church to young adults.
“I was someone that was not a Catholic. I actually thought I hated the Catholic faith, but it was because of what I thought that I knew about the faith; and I think that young adults just don’t really hear the truth,” De Silva said. “I can’t tell you why that is, why they don’t hear that; but I think that we need to constantly be helping young adults to be able to see what is hidden to them.”
De Silva said in his ministry he’s been able to employ many great Catholic speakers and Catholic resources. He gave the example of an event in September where author and theologian Edward Sri spoke about his book Men, Women and the Mystery of Love, which is based on the teachings of Pope St. John Paul II. De Silva said that while the things discussed were “nothing new,” the young adults’ reactions were “Wow — I have never heard this before. This is just completely revolutionary; this changes the way I view everything.”
He said the diocese plans “to continue to do things like this to take these age-old truths, help to uncover them for young adults to be able to receive it, and then they’ll naturally go out and share it because it’s going to change them.”
Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based staff writer.